Facebook is getting into the gig economy

Lofty goals.
Lofty goals.
Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares
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Facebook wants in on the gig economy. The social networking company is adding a home-services feature to Marketplace, that messier-than-Craigslist portion of the site where people sell everything from shoes (free, on a cursory scan earlier this week), to homes ($299,900), to used custom lace wigs (also free).

Home services is big business, with US consumers spending $16 billion on cleanings alone in 2017. Facebook has partnered with cleaning and services companies Handy, HomeAdvisor, and Porch to bring cleaning and other such services to Marketplace in the US. That comes after Amazon hired a crew of cleaners for a Seattle-area pilot program in March, and Walmart partnered with Handy on furniture installation and assembly. In September 2017, Ikea bought TaskRabbit to build out delivery and assembly.

Home services, in theory, is one of the purer manifestations of the so-called gig economy. People who drive for Uber or deliver food for Postmates are considered independent contractors, but they only have so much control over their work. They can choose their hours, yes, but they don’t set their hourly rates or have much choice over which job they’ll do next. Traditionally, independent contractors have traded benefits and employment protections for the benefit of being their own boss. Uber drivers get some flexibility, but they bear little resemblance to the contractors you would traditionally find through the yellow pages, who controlled almost every aspect of the job.

Gig companies for handymen tend to be different. Service providers on platforms like TaskRabbit, Thumbtack, and HomeAdvisor pick the types of jobs they want to do and set rates or bid on customer requests. Some of them can opt in to automatic, on-demand dispatches that operate more like an Uber or Lyft, but on the whole these contractors still have a lot in common with the person you would hire through the phonebook.

It makes sense that these handyman platforms don’t operate just like Uber. Despite being a poster child for the gig economy, the Uber model doesn’t always work. Uber is essentially a fancy automated taxi dispatch system, and only requires one kind of labor: drivers. Its labor has already received some sort of standardized training and a license from the government. That means the company that hires them (Uber, Lyft, etc.) doesn’t need to do any additional training, which, if it did, could suggest an employer-like relationship; it can just put them to work. It also means that those workers are highly replaceable.

“Uber is simple,” says Chris Terrill, CEO of Angi Homeservices, a collection of brands that includes Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor. “I need to get from point A to point B. Get me a car, now.”

Handyman services are more complicated. There are a lot of different, often specialized skills involved, and service quality matters.  Someone who can fix your toilet might not know how to aerate your lawn. One plumber might be clearly be better than another. Companies that want to hire workers as contractors, rather than employees, also can’t provide much by way of training, which means it’s up to them to recruit skilled professional. Such workers are less replaceable.

Reputation also really matters. Even if Uber drivers could set their own rates, most people probably wouldn’t be willing to pay a premium for a five-star driver when a four-star driver would do just as well. But they might very well pay more to hire for well-reviewed movers who are transporting all their earthly possessions from one home to another.

The point is that home services is not, by any means, an easy category; you might even argue it’s the trickiest among the gig economy services. Amazon has long struggled to break into home services, and there’s no real reason to suspect that Facebook will be any better. But it is a large internet company with vast resources, a massive platform, and a seemingly unquenchable thirst to grow bigger. So why not?